Julian's Persian expedition

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Investiture of King Shapur II by the gods Mithras (left) and Ahuramazda (right); the body of Julian is trampled underfoot. Reliefs at Taq-i Bustan
Map showing Julian's journey from Constantinople to Antioch (in 362) and his Persian expedition (in 363), ending with his death near Samarra
The Roman road from Antioch to Chalcis and Aleppo, the first stage of Julian's expedition

Julian's Persian expedition was the last undertaking of the Roman emperor Julian, begun in March 363. It was an aggressive war against the Persian Empire ruled by the Sassanian king Shapur II. Shapur is believed to have expected an invasion by way of the Tigris valley. Julian sent a detachment to join with his ally Arshak II of Armenia and take the Tigris route. Meanwhile with his main army he advanced rapidly down the Euphrates valley, meeting only scattered opposition, and reached the walls of the Persian capital Ctesiphon where he met and defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Ctesiphon (363). Unable to take the city, and with a faltering plan of campaign, he eventually retreated north towards Samarra where he was fatally injured in a skirmish, dying on 26 June 363. The leaderless Roman army chose Jovian as Julian's successor. The new emperor negotiated a retreat from a weak bargaining position. His agreement with Shapur transferred to Persian rule the major cities of Nisibis and Singara, and renounced the alliance with Armenia. This left Arsaces II without support. He was captured and imprisoned by Shapur in 368; still a prisoner, he committed suicide in 369 or 370.

Aims and preparations[edit]

According to contemporary Roman sources Julian's aim was to punish the Persians for their recent invasion of Rome's eastern provinces; for this reason he refused Shapur's immediate offer of negotiations.[1] Among the leaders of the expedition was Hormizd, a brother of Shapur II, who had fled from the Persian Empire forty years earlier and had been welcomed by the then Roman emperor Constantine I. Julian is said to have intended to place Hormizd on the Persian throne in place of Shapur.[2] A devout believer in the old Roman religion, Julian asked several major oracles about the outcome of his expedition.[3] The philosopher Sallustius, a friend of Julian, wrote advising him to abandon his plan,[4] and numerous adverse omens were reported; at the urging of other advisers he went ahead.[5] He instructed Arshak II of Armenia to prepare a large army, but without revealing its purpose;[6] he sent Lucillianus to Samosata in the upper Euphrates valley to build a fleet of river ships.[7] These preparations are thought by scholars to have suggested to Shapur that an invasion from the north, by way of the Tigris valley, was Julian's plan.

The advance[edit]

Julian had wintered at Antioch in Roman Syria. On 5 March 363 he set out north-west with his army by way of Aleppo[8] and Manbij, where fifty soldiers were killed in the collapse of a portico while they were marching under it.[9] The whole army mustered there, crossed the middle Euphrates and proceeded to Harran, known to the Romans as Carrhae, site of the famous battle in which the Roman general Crassus was defeated and killed in 53 BC. "From there two different royal highways lead to Persia," writes the eye-witness Ammianus Marcellinus: "the one on the left through Adiabene and across the Tigris; the one on the right through Assyria and across the Euphrates."[10] Julian made use of both. He sent a detachment (numbering 30 000 according to Ammianus but only 18 000 according to Zosimus who was also an eye-witness) under Procopius and Sebastianus towards the Tigris where they were to join Arshak and his Armenian army. They were then to attack the Persians from the north.[11]

Julian himself, with the larger part of his army (whose numbers are not stated in any early source) turned south towards the lower Euphrates, reaching Callinicum (al-Raqqah) on 27 March and meeting the fleet under the command of Lucillianus.[12] There he was met by leaders of the "Saraceni" (Arab nomads), who offered Julian a gold crown. He refused to pay the traditional tribute in return.[13] The army followed the Euphrates downstream to Circesium (the border city) and crossed the river Aboras (Khabur) with the help of a pontoon bridge assembled for the purpose.


  1. ^ Libanius, Orations 17.19, 18.164
  2. ^ Libanius, Letters 1402.3
  3. ^ Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 3.21-25
  4. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae 23.5.4
  5. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae 23.5.10; Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History 3.21.6
  6. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae 23.2.2; Libanius, Orationes 18.215; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 6.1.2
  7. ^ Magnus of Carrhae FGrH 225 F 1 (Malalas, Chronography 13 pp. 328-329)
  8. ^ Dodgeon and Lieu (1991) p. 231
  9. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae 23.2.6
  10. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae 23.3.1
  11. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae 23.3.4-5; Zosimus, New History 3.12.3-5; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 6.1.2
  12. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae 23.3.6-9; Zosimus, New History 3.13.1-3
  13. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae 23.3.8, 25.6.10


  • R. Andreotti, "L'impresa di Iuliano in Oriente" in Historia vol. 4 (1930) pp. 236–273
  • Timothy D. Barnes, Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8014-3526-9) pp. 164–165
  • Glen Warren Bowersock, Julian the Apostate (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. ISBN 0-674-48881-4) pp. 106–119 Preview at Google Books
  • J. den Boeft, J. W. Drijvers, D. den Hengst, H. C. Teitler, Philological and Historical Commentary on Ammianus Marcellinus XXIV. Leiden: Brill, 2002 Preview at Google Books
  • Walter R. Chalmers, "Eunapius, Ammianus Marcellinus, and Zosimus on Julian's Persian Expedition" in Classical Quarterly n.s. vol. 10 (1960) pp. 152–160
  • Franz Cumont, "La marche de l'empereur Julien d'Antioche à l'Euphrate" in F. Cumont, Etudes syriennes (Paris: Picard, 1917) pp. 1–33 Text at archive.org
  • L. Dillemann, "Ammien Marcellin et les pays de l'Euphrate et du Tigre" in Syria vol. 38 (1961) p. 87 ff.
  • M. H. Dodgeon, S. N. C. Lieu, The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars: 363-628 AD: a narrative sourcebook (London: Routledge, 1991) pp. 231–274 Preview (with different page numbers) at Google Books
  • Ch. W. Fornara, "Julian's Persian Expedition in Ammianus and Zosimus" in Journal of Hellenic Studies vol. 111 (1991) pp. 1–15
  • David Hunt, "Julian" in Cambridge Ancient History vol. 13 (1998. ISBN 0521302005) pp. 44–77, esp. pp. 75–76 Preview at Google Books
  • W. E. Kaegi, "Constantine's and Julian's Strategies of Strategic Surprise against the Persians" in Athenaeum n.s. vol. 69 (1981) pp. 209–213
  • Erich Kettenhofen, "Julian" in Encyclopaedia Iranica Online (2009-2012)
  • John Matthews, The Roman Empire of Ammianus (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. ISBN 9780801839658) pp. 140–161
  • A. F. Norman, "Magnus in Ammianus, Eunapius, and Zosimus: New Evidence" in Classical Quarterly' n.s. vol. 7 (1957) pp. 129–133
  • F. Paschoud, ed., Zosime: Histoire nouvelle. Vol. 2 pars 1. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1979 (Collection Budé)
  • David S. Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay: AD 180-395 (London: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 9780415100571) pp. 518 et 720 Preview at Google Books
  • R. T. Ridley, "Notes on Julian's Persian Expedition (363)" in Historia vol. 22 (1973) pp. 317–330 esp. p. 326
  • Gerhard Wirth, "Julians Perserkrieg. Kriterien einer Katastrophe" in Richard Klein, ed., Julian Apostata (Darmstadt, 1978) p. 455 ff.

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